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Under The Loupe with Dr Lindsey Fitzharris
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Under The Loupe with Dr Lindsey Fitzharris

Under The Loupe with Dr Lindsey Fitzharris

One of our most renowned Under The Loupe guests, we are delighted to present to you Dr Lindsey Fitzharris! A prolific medical historian, author, TV presenter and fellow antique mourning jewellery lover, we naturally had to place her "under the loupe". We have had the absolute pleasure of interviewing Lindsey all about her life, work and why our collection of jewels has sparkled her interest. If you love the gruesome, grim and gothic, then you have to find out more about this wonderful inspiring woman, paving the way for women in medical history.

For those who aren’t already aware, please introduce yourself, your background, and the incredible accomplishments you have made so far in your career?

"I’m a bestselling author and medical historian with a PhD in the History of Science Medicine and Technology from the University of Oxford. My debut book, The Butchering Art, is about the brutal and bloody world of Victorian surgery. It came out in 2017 and has been translated into 20 languages. I’m also the host of the TV series, The Curious Life and Death of…, which premiered in 2020 on the Smithsonian Channel."

Evidently, your career, interests and passions are deeply rooted within medical history. What got you interested in this subject?

"I joke that I was a strange child, and I grew up to be an even stranger adult. When I was younger, I used to drag my grandmother from cemetery to cemetery hunting “ghosts.” Some people might think I had a fascination with death, but actually, I was always fascinated with the past—and the people who lived there. Eventually, I decided to pursue a degree in medical history. I think my attraction to the subject is similar to why people gravitate towards my content online: we all know what it is like to be sick. How was the experience different for people in the past? That is what I set out to explain through my work."

And what inspired you to write your books?

"My first book came at a low point in my life. My ex-husband had abruptly ended our 10-year relationship and disappeared on me. As a result, I suddenly found myself facing deportation from a country I had called home for many years. My passport was confiscated, and I wasn’t allowed to work while my immigration situation was being decided. My ex-husband’s lawyers painted a picture of me as a failed writer, which was easy to believe since I had no money, no job prospects, and no right to remain in my home. During those eight excruciating months, I worked on a proposal for The Butchering Art. And with the support of friends and family who would not let me give up on my dreams, I was able to break into commercial publishing.  

Failure is essential to success. It informs us, guides us, and pushes us in directions we couldn’t have imagined going in the first place."

Your first book focuses on Joseph Lister, who revolutionized Victorian surgery through the application of germ theory. And your next book is on Harold Gillies, the “Father of Modern Plastic Surgery,” who rebuilt the faces of soldiers injured during the First World War. Is there another scientist or individual that you would also like to share to the world?

"I enjoy writing books about transformative moments in the history of medicine— events that fundamentally changed the way we understand the world. I’ve just submitted the manuscript for next book on Harold Gillies, and I already have my eyes set on another important figure from history for Book 3. But I’m afraid I can’t say anymore until the book contract is signed, sealed, and delivered!"

If you can choose just one, what is your favourite fact that you have EVER learnt!?

"Victorian operating theatres were filled to the rafters with medical students and ticketed spectators, many of whom had dragged in with them the dirt and grime of everyday life. The surgeon wore a blood-encrusted apron, rarely washed his hands or his instruments, and carried with him the unmistakable smell of rotting  

flesh, which those in the profession cheerfully referred to as ‘good old hospital stink.’ Before the advent of anaesthesia in the 1840s, patients were fully conscious during an operation. Postoperative infection was so common that most surgeries became slow-moving executions."

Did you ever have a “pinch me” moment since starting out on your medical history career?

"It took me eight months to write the proposal for The Butchering Art, and only forty-eight hours to sell it in a six-figure book deal. It changed my life. The following day, the Home Office granted me permission to remain in the U.K. It was as if all the trauma I had been through during the divorce had suddenly righted itself, and I could move forward with my life."

If you weren’t a medical historian, would there be another career path you think you would have gone down?  

"Although I’m a medical historian by training, I’m a storyteller first and foremost. I often tell the stories about the past that excited me when I was younger. I’m not sure I can imagine doing anything else with my life. I love getting people interested in the past."

Do you have any advice for budding writers?

"Focus on your platform. Build an audience before trying to sell a book. I spend hours each day engaging the public with medical history via Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. I’ve acquired hundreds of thousands of followers over the years, which has allowed me to set myself up as an expert in my subject. This is very important if you are going to “prove” to a publisher that you are the best person to write your proposed book. Don’t give up on your dreams."

You were the lucky person who nabbed our famous Bague Au Firmament ring, what drew you towards this ring and where did your first encounter with this type of jewellery come from?

"I am the lucky owner of the Bague Au Firmament ring! The celestial blue background with a dazzling diamond at the centre is meant to evoke the twinkling night sky. The design was inspired by discoveries in astronomy during the 18thcentury, like Halley’s comet in 1759. Besides the fact that it is a stunning ring, I also love its association with the history of science. It’s a real conversation piece! I can’t wait to showcase it on my next book tour in 2022."

You have also mentioned antique mourning jewellery on your Instagram page. Why do you love antique mourning jewellery? And just like the Bague Au Firmament ring, where did your first encounter with this endlessly fascinating type of jewellery come to be?

"Mourning jewelry has been around since at least the 16th century, but it is widely associated with the Victorian era, when mass production made these types of pieces more affordable. Mourning rings from these later periods often incorporated hair from the deceased into its design. Many examples also contained inscriptions with person's name and date of death. Stones mounted on these rings were usually black. The presence of white enamel typically signified the death of a child or an unmarried woman. After the emergence of photography in the latter half of the 19th century, a mourning ring might feature a photograph mounted on the bezel.  

I’ve long been interested in this type of jewellery—in part because of its association with death. I often come across interesting pieces in the museums where I conduct some of my research."

You have also mentioned antique mourning jewellery on your Instagram page. Why do you love antique mourning jewellery? And just like the Bague Au Firmament ring, where did your first encounter with this endlessly fascinating type of jewellery come to be?

"I adore the Georgian Jet Mourning Ring, c.1818. I wanted to buy it, but because of the ornate, inscribed band – it couldn’t be resized to fit my finger. I hope it finds a good home!"

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